Prescot: A Neglected Treasure

By on Saturday, October 23, 2010

By David L Rattigan

Steeple of Prescot Parish Church

As you drive away from Liverpool on the A57, just beyond Huyton, a church steeple atop a hill dominates the skyline. It has stood for almost 300 years; the church below it, St Mary’s, has just seen its 400th birthday. The parish itself dates to at least the 12th century.

The steeple looks over a town that has been home for centuries to the Earl of Derby. His sprawling estate now contains Knowsley Safari Park, the legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby, who kept a menagerie of animals on the land. He invited an artist to the estate to create paintings of the creatures for posterity; the artist was Edward Lear, the nonsense poet and limericist, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for Lord Derby’s grandchildren.

In the late 16th century, the Prescot Playhouse was one of the most important free-standing theatres outside London. There is strong historical evidence to suggest Shakespeare himself stayed in the town and wrote or staged plays there. (This is not merely anecdotes and folklore kept alive by local armchair historians. Ongoing research by academics at John Moores University, Liverpool, supports the thesis, and historians Richard Wilson and David George are among those to have backed the theory.)

In 2007, the Shakespeare North Trust was established to advance its connection to the Bard and, backed by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, they launched a lottery bid to build an arts centre, to be housed in a replica Elizabethan cockpit theatre in the town.

Three years later, the project, having failed in its bid for funding, has dwindled to virtually nothing. Will anything be done to commemorate Prescot’s Elizabethan heritage and its Shakespearean associations? It seems to be just one of many lost opportunities in Prescot.

Prescot has a museum, the only permanent visitor attraction apart from Knowsley Safari Park. While it has housed some excellent temporary exhibitions on non-local subjects, the only permanent display is dedicated almost exclusively to Prescot’s historic clock- and watch-making industry. Where are Shakespeare, Edward Lear, Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton? Where is the history of one of Merseyside’s most beautiful churches (and the borough’s only Grade I listed building)? Where is the celebration of the town’s vibrant Elizabethan past, some of which can still be glimpsed in the age-old timbers, shop-fronts and buildings of modern Prescot? Where are the boasts that Prescot is home to the narrowest street in Britain? (And a quaint, cobbled street it is, too.)

Those boasts just don’t exist. We get clocks instead. And, puzzlingly, the museum closes its doors on bank holidays, when the most visitors are guaranteed to be passing through the town.

It’s not just tourism that suffers. Who in a position of any political power is doing anything for business and trade in the town? Local authorities seem to have given every conceivable break to Tesco, resulting in a thriving retail park on the edge of the town centre, but small businesses and shops in the town centre lie forgotten. One by one, Eccleston Street shops have become vacant and been boarded up. A walk through the now-dreary town centre reveals few signs of life.

The Prescot Festival (disclosure: this author was its assistant director from 2005 to 2009), an annual 10-day arts and music festival, has done sterling work to make use of the town’s venues–mostly churches and their halls–but still the town lacks a single purpose-built venue for arts, entertainment and community functions. There is an outdated, dilapidated leisure centre with a moderate-size function room, but Knowsley Council is currently heavily pushing plans to close it and replace it with little more than a block of pitch-side changing rooms. In fact, it needs radical renovation or replacement with a far better community venue.

But there are signs of hope. It seems some Prescotians are finally at the end of their tether and are standing up to fight. In the past few months, several Facebook groups have sprung up to decry the situation. People are talking, and the talk is becoming action. Earlier this month, over 500 signatures were collected in a few hours to protest the planned closure of Prescot Leisure Centre. A handful of grassroots activists, supported by Lib Dem councillors, are starting to make noises and fight Prescot’s corner against Knowsley Council. (This author is no partisan, but where are the local Labour councillors in this?)

It is grassroots activism that will save Prescot. Everyone knows there is little money to go round at the moment. But Prescot doesn’t want special treatment. Prescotians just want what is due to them, and what has been given to other towns in Knowsley. Tesco and big developers have more than their fair share of the Prescot pie, leaving the town centre to die. Towns like Huyton and Kirkby have more than their fair share of the Knowsley pie, leaving Prescot to pick at the crumbs.

Their fair share is all Prescotians want and are entitled to. Otherwise, Prescot will continue to sink into a mire of wasted potential and squandered opportunity.

Floreat Prescotia–may Prescot flourish.


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